“If we take seriously the Pauline conceptions of the Christian Church as the Body of Christ, then Church History may be regarded as the continuation of the story of Jesus. That is to say, Jesus, who began to act and teach on earth in the years immediately preceding A.D. 30, has continued to act and teach since that year by His Spirit in his servants; and the history of Christianity ought to be the history of what He has been doing and teaching in this way down to our own times–a continuous Acts of the Apostles. But this is not how Church history is usually viewed or presented. There is much truth in the words of the late Dean Inge:
The real history of Christianity is the history of a great spiritual tradition. The only true apostolic succession is the lives of the saints. Clement of Alexandria compared the Church to a great river, receiving affluents from all sides. The great river sometimes flows impetuously through a narrow channel; sometimes it spreads like a flood; sometimes it divides into several streams; sometimes, for a time, it seems to have been driven underground. But the Holy Spirit has never left himself without witness; and if we will put aside a great deal of what passes for Church history, and is really a rather unedifying branch of secular history, and follow the course of the religion of the Spirit and the Church of the Spirit, we shall judge very differently of the relative importance of events from those who merely follow the fortunes of institutionalism (W. R. Inge, Things New and Old, pp. 57f).
“But the difficulty for the would-be historian is this: it is relatively easy to trace the fortunes of a visible institution, whereas the course of a great spiritual tradition is much more elusive. And yet, the two are so closely interwoven that it is impossible to treat of the one without constant reference to the other” (F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame, 161).